This year marks the 161st year of service that the International Mission Board has given to the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. During this time, godly men and women have been supported by this agency as they sacrificed their lives in Gospel service to the nations. Though it is many years old, the IMB continues to impact the nations for the Kingdom of God unlike any other missions organization of its kind, and this impact has historically been undergirded by two balanced pillars: conviction, and cooperation. Given recent policy developments at the Board, the question that now faces IMB trustees is one of whether this delicate balance will remain, or be disturbed in a way that rolls back its advances into the Kingdom of darkness in a way damaging to the Kingdom of light.
The recent policy changes at the Board regarding tongues and baptism have caused a firestorm of discussion, particularly in the blogosphere. While there have been, shall we say, less than charitable statements made by both sides of this debate in cyberspace, I have found the trustees on both sides to be overwhelmingly cordial, and willing to both listen and honestly speak their minds. As providence would have it, I am in Richmond Virginia this week in meetings with a few pastors and University personnel from different parts of the country to talk about the recruitment of church planters and the sponsoring of new churches in my mission field of central Maryland. As such, I have also had the privilege of attending the plenary sessions of the trustee meetings that are taking place at the IMB headquarters in Richmond this week. I have heard incredible stories just today of what God is doing through this agency, and have rejoiced at the fruit that is being borne due to the heavy spiritual labor of our Southern Baptist missionaries.
Most notably, I have had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Wade Burleson. Serving his first term as an IMB trustee, Wade serves the Immanuel Baptist Church of Enid, OK as Senior Pastor, and has just finished his second term of service as President of the Oklahoma Baptist Convention. A strong theological conservative who is passionate about missions and missionaries, Wade is the kind of man who I am proud to have represent our churches as he serves in this capacity. While he speaks with great respect for those who differ with him, Wade is opposed to the new policies, and has made his displeasure known though his weblog Grace and Truth to You (http://kerussocharis.blogspot.com/) In addition, I have had the opportunity to speak with those who voted in favor of the new policies. For those of you who are unaware of what these new policies entail, below is a summary:
New Policy on Tongues. The old policy forbade a Southern Baptist missionary from practicing glossolalia in public worship, but allowed for "private prayer language." Under the new policy, those claiming to possess a private prayer language will not be appointed.
New Policy on Baptism. The old policy required those appointed to be members of a Southern Baptist church for at least three years, required that they be baptized by immersion subsequent to their conversion, and that they understood this baptism to be a picture of the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and of their identification with Christ. They must also acknowlege that their baptism was not regenerative. The new policy adds to the above that the missionary candidate be baptized by a "qualified administrator," defined as either a Southern Baptist Church, or a church which believes all of the above about baptism, and in addition, affirms the eternal security of the believer. If a candidate was baptized elsewhere, even if he or she has been a Southern Baptist for years, he or she would be required to submit to a "re-Baptism" in their Southern Baptist Church as an affirmation of all of the above doctrines.
While I strongly believe that all of our trustees want to maintain the balance between conviction and cooperation, I fear that these new policies, particularly the new policy on Baptism, superceeds the Scriptural requirements and creates a needless barrier that could potentially disqualify many godly and otherwise worthy candidates from serving. At the same time, I respect and admire their desire to maintain Baptist convictions. Yet Baptist convictions are Baptist principlally because, as "people of the Book," we believe those convictions to come from Holy Scripture. The ordinance of Baptism was given by Christ as a tool of identification with Himself, not with any particular denominational group. It was given as a metaphorical picture of 2 Corinthians 5:17, and the new guidelines, in my view, distort that picture by claiming that those from certain other traditions who have experienced Biblical immersion after conversion didn't really receive Scriptural baptism because it wasn't under the authority of a church that believes everything Southern Baptists believe.
Certainly the IMB ought to have standards for our missionaries, and those standards should reflect no less than the convictions of our churches as found in the Baptist Faith and Message. But if conviction and cooperation don't continue to be held in balance, the Gospel witness will be harmed, and for the following reasons:
Cooperation without Conviction = Ecumenism: The danger that comes with not setting doctrinal standards has already been experienced (and the results are drastically obvious) within mainline Protestantism. I am thankful that IMB trustees have put in place certain doctrinal safeguards to ensure that those appointed as missionaries actually believe the Scriptures are the Word of God, actually believe that those who die without Christ are eternally separated from God, and actually believe that the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth is the non-negotiable demand of the Great Commission.
In addition, our understanding of Christian baptism is central to the preached Gospel it accompanies. We believe immersion to be the only mode of baptism, and we confess baptism to be symbolic and not regenerative, not because these are "Baptist doctrines," but because our thorough exegesis of the text brings us to these conclusions. If we do not speak where Scripture speaks, then our "cooperation" is ultimately meaningless! Imagine a British soldier and a Nazi soldier trying to "unite" during World War II. They may both be well-trained, and they may both be armed and ready for battle, but each is fighting for a radically different cause! Cooperation is neccesary, but it is only potent when all involved in the process share the same basic convictions.
Conviction without Cooperation = Isolationism: As threatening as Ecumenism is to the larger body of Christ, I believe the more imminent danger we now face as Southern Baptists is that of isolationism. The recent IMB issues are merely one part of a larger tendency among some in the convention toward isolation. Conservative historian Richard Bailey has stated that Southern Baptists "hardly represent evangelicals," and that in our history we have mostly exemplified the principle that "the people who generally tend to work best alone want to keep working alone." Bailey bases his assumption on the fact that a modern understanding of "evangelical", "has to do with a common identity that crosses denominational lines, leaders, publications and institutions. Here, I find 99.9% of [Southern Baptists] unwilling to go." Although I take issue with Bailey's contention about the percentage of Southern Baptists who are unwilling to work with others, the tendencies he describes are tragically sad. It is the refusal to believe that one can stand firmly in his or her own tradition, while at the same time cooperate with others who share his or her basic Gospel convictions.
Similarly, the recent issues at the IMB are, I believe, the refusal of those who hold to a "landmarkist" position on baptism and a "cessationist" view of glossolalia to believe that he or she can stand firmly in that position, while at the same time recognizing and respecting his or her fellow Southern Baptist who shares his or her belief in other Scriptural principles as delineated in the Baptist Faith and Message.
-The SBC Calvinist should be able to work with the SBC Arminian.
-The SBC Covenant Thinker should be able to work with the SBC Dispensationalist.
-The SBC Sabbatarian should be able to work with the SBCer who holds to a "Lord's Day" view of Sunday.
-The SBC premillenial should be able to work with the SBC amillenial.
-The SBC landmarkist should be able to work with those who don't share his or her convictions.
Six years ago, I heard John Piper say that if we only recognize that which we perceive to be totally doctrinally correct as a move of God, we will miss out on most of what God is doing in the world. If we continue to isolate ourselves and narrow the parameters of cooperation in the SBC, I fear we will miss even more!
Bottom line: We need conviction, and we need cooperation! But while I am appreciative of the recent emphasis on conviction, these issues have me convinced that genuine cooperation is at risk!
I'm afraid Burleson is right when he claims that there is a "narrowing [of] the parameters of fellowship and cooperation to the point that real, genuine conservatives are being excluded as unfit for service in the SBC." And it appears that the new IMB guidelines are already fleshing out this reality.
I read day before yesterday of one of our missionaries who oversees a vast area among many unreached peoples. After many years of praying and searching, they finally discovered a young couple who were called and distinctly qualified for serving in this region. They have been members of a Southern Baptist church for many years, are both seminary graduates, and have met every other requirement for appointment. Unfortunately, they were never presented to the Board for approval as missionaries, and because of this, thousands of unreached peoples will have to continue waiting before someone reaches them with the Gospel. Why is this?
Because the husband is from a Pentecostal background. Although he affirms the Baptist Faith and Message, the church that performed his Scriptural baptism rejects eternal security. Oh, and he also has a private prayer language.
Southern Baptists introduced me to Jesus Christ, discipled me through some of the hardest times in my life, ordained me to the ministry, educated me twice in their seminaries. And presently, they have commissioned me as one of their North American missionaries. I am proud of my heritage! I love the Southern Baptist Convention, and I'm proud that many of our esteemed leaders love it as well. But if we are to continue having a maximum impact on the Kingdom, we had better love the Gospel more!
Update (January 11): It appears from early reports that while in Executive Session yesterday, IMB trustees voted to reccomend that the Southern Baptist Convention remove Wade Burleson from the trustee board during the Convention's annual meeting this June in Greensboro, NC. Our prayers should be for Wade and his family during this very difficult time. In addition, now more than ever is the time to pray for the International Mission Board.